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Source enquiry: Protest , law and order in the 20 th century Exam: Tuesday, 7 th June 2011 in the morning. Factors to think about. Key skills. Content. Political protests The Suffragettes’ campaign for votes for women 1903-1914 The Poll Tax protests 1990 Economic protests

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Source enquiry: Protest, law and order in the 20thcenturyExam: Tuesday, 7th June 2011 in the morning

Factors to think about

Key skills


Political protests

The Suffragettes’ campaign for votes for women 1903-1914

The Poll Tax protests 1990

Economic protests

The General Strike 1926

The Miners’ Strike 1984-1985

  • Leadership
  • Organisation
  • The media
  • The powers of governments
  • How all the above affected the
  • success or failure of the protests
  • Inference and portrayal
  • Source analysis
  • Source evaluation for reliability (can we trust it?) and utility (how useful? does it help us understand?)
  • Cross referencing of sources
  • Using sources and own knowledge to make a judgment

For discussion

  • Do protests ever win against
  • governments?
  • Can violence be justified in pursuit of a
  • cause?
  • Is state violence acceptable?
  • Is peaceful civil disobedience an
  • effective way to protest?
  • How far would you be prepared to go to
  • protest for or against something?
  • Breaking the law? Risking injury or death?
key points suffragettes 1903 18
Key points – SUFFRAGETTES 1903-18


Women did not have equal rights and opportunities with men. Without the right to vote they could not bring about change


Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia


Direct action including violence to property, protests, disruption and personal risk

Chaining themselves to railings, firebombing, breaking windows, hunger strikes in prison

Posters, newspapers, meetings, marches all aimed at getting as much publicity as possible


The Prime Minister was Herbert Asquith

Heavy-handed and violent police, arrests, force feeding

The ‘Cat and Mouse Act’


After the First World War, in 1918 women over 30 got the vote and ten years later all women could vote.

key points general strike 1926
Key points – GENERAL STRIKE 1926


The fall in demand for coal

Mine owners demanded that miners worked longer hours for less pay

The TUC – representing all workers – voted to support the miners.

The Samuel Commission came down on the side of the owners.


AJ Cook was the leader of the miners.

The TUC was led by Walter Citrine, Jimmy Thomas and Ernest Bevin


Workers in all main industries refused to work, causing a shutdown of the docks, newspapers and and transport services.

Pickets tried to prevent lorries, trains and buses.

The strikers’ newspaper was the BritishWorker.

Workers formed their own trades councils and self defence committees.


The Prime Minister was Stanley Baldwin. He had stockpiled coal. Every region was organised with army bases and soldiers protecting lorries bringing supplies.

OMS volunteers drove vehicles and helped with services.

The government’s newspaper was the British Gazette.

The BBC only allowed the government side to speak on the radio.

The media accused the TUC of wanting a revolution.


Although the strike was growing, after 8 days the TUC leaders gave in and ended the strike.

The miners carried on but in the end they had to give in.

key points miners strike 1984 85
Key points – MINERS’ STRIKE 1984-85


The Government announced plans to close down 20 coal mines, losing 20,000 jobs.


The leader of the NUM was Arthur Scargill.


Strikes supported by the strong communities in the mining villages.

Mass pickets of electricity power stations to try and stop coal getting to them.

Meetings, rallies, benefit concerts etc to get support from other trades unionists and community groups.

Soup kitchens etc to support strikers’ families.

Women Against Pit Closures – solidarity work by women in mining communities.

Media reports showed police brutality.


The Prime Minister was Margaret Thatcher. She wanted to break the NUM and the trades union movement.

She appointed Ian McGregor to head the National Coal Board. He had a reputation for fighting trades unions.

Power stations were kept going .

The miners were divided: some refused to strike and a breakaway union was formed in Nottinghamshire.

The government used the police against mass pickets.

The courts were used to confiscate the NUM’s funds.

Media reports showed violence by the pickets.

Hardship and hunger caused many striking miners to go back to work.

Other unions and the TUC did not support the strike.


After 11 months the strike ended without success and the miners went back to work.

Over the next ten years most coal mines in Britain were closed down.

key points poll tax protests 1989 90
Key points – POLL TAX PROTESTS 1989-90


The government replaced rates (paid according to house value) with a community charge (which involved rich and poor paying the same amount).

This new tax was very unpopular and was nicknamed the Poll Tax.


No real leaders, but the All-Britain Anti Poll Tax Federation was led by Tommy Sullivan from Scotland.


Resistance in 4 main ways:

  • non-registration
  • non-payment
  • non-implementation
  • non-collection

In the end over 18 million people refused to pay the tax and many of them refused to pay the fines imposed by the courts.

Protests outside council offices to try to stop local councils setting the tax.

APTUs (Anti Poll Tax Unions) were set up all over the country.

There was a big protest march ending at Trafalgar Square on 31 March 1990 which developed into a battle between police and protesters and a riot in central London.


The Prime Minister was Margaret Thatcher. The government tried to use the courts and bailiffs to get people to pay.

Policing of the Trafalgar Square protest was very heavy handed.

As the movement came from the grassroots and had no real leaders it was hard for the government to control.

So many people were refusing to pay that they could not arrest everyone.


Leaders of the Conservative Party realised they had to abandon the Poll Tax and they could not win the next election with Thatcher leading them.

She was forced out of leadership by her own ministers and replaced by John Major.

The government ended the Poll Tax and replaced it with Council Tax. Millions of people never did pay the tax.

protest law and order in the 20 th century
Protest, law and order in the 20th century



NUWSS Suffragists (nonviolent action)

WSPU Suffragettes (direct action)

General Strike:

TUC trades union congress

TIA triple alliance (railwaymen, dockers, transport workers)

OMS volunteers to break the strike

Miners’ Strike:

NUM miners’ union

NCB coal board (running the mines for the government)

UDM breakaway miners’ union in Nottinghamshire

Poll Tax Protests:

APTUs anti-poll tax unions

ABAPTF all Britain anti-poll tax organisation

the suffragettes
The Suffragettes

Early years 1903-1906

Developments 1906-1908

1906 The Liberals won the election and many thought they would give women the vote. But Prime Minister Asquith said other reforms were more important.

Suffragists and Suffragettes tried publicity events: leaflets, Votes for Women newspaper, publicity stunts, large demonstrations (300,000 in WSPU march to Hyde Park 1908)

October 1906 WSPU Suffragettes broke the law by protesting in the House of Commons. Arrested and sent to prison.

Others chained themselves to railings outside Downing Street.

No response from Asquith so WSPU decided to step up their action.

Suffragette actions included setting fire to buildings and post boxes, cutting telegraph wires,. pouring acid on golf courses

NUWSS and WSPU split away from each other.

Very few rights for women and no right to vote in general elections – ‘politics should be left to men’.

How could powerless ‘outsiders’ persuade those with power to share it with them?

Peaceful protest within the law? Work within the system? Or break the law?

1897 National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) led by Millicent Fawcett: peaceful protest, letters, leaflets, petitions etc. Known as the Suffragists. But little change meant many thought this was not enough.

1903 Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), known as the Suffragettes. Set up by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia. ‘Deeds not Words. One object, political equality with men.’ They organised events to get publicity and were ready to break the law.

the suffragettes1
The Suffragettes

Government attempts to deal with the protests

The authorities began force-feeding the women in prison. Wedges forced mouth to open, tube pushed down through the nose. Sometimes the food went into the lungs instead of the stomach.

Many health problems as a result.

This caused a public outcry and got the WSPU more support.

1910 Asquith agreed to work with the WSPU and NUWSS on a new Bill to give women the vote. The Suffragettes called off violent protests. But the new law never happened because Liberals thought women would vote for the Conservatives.

Friday 18th November 1910 (‘Black Friday’) over 300 Suffragettes protested angrily outside Parliament. The police were told to scare and humiliate them. Many women suffered violent and sexual assault from the police.

Hundreds more women were now willing to go to prison.

1911 big window-breaking campaign

1913 the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ – hunger strikers freed from prison before they were badly ill, then arrested again when they were strong.

The government found it hard to deal with the protests without upsetting the public and giving the Suffragettes more support.

Liberal MPs were divided about women’s votes – some for and some against.

When the WSPU used direct action the government took a hard line. They banned all women from Liberal meetings.

WSPU members broke windows and refused to pay fines. They wanted to be sent to prison.

They wanted to be treated as political prisoners but the government treated them as ordinary criminals (not allowed to speak, having to empty their own chamber pots). They wanted to scare and humiliate Suffragettes and put off others from doing the same.

Some Suffragettes went on hunger strike.

The government did not want them to die in prison and become martyrs.

Balance of power – If authorities are powerful enough to squash a protest it gets nowhere.

If government is scared to use its power because of public reaction, protesters can force change.

the suffragettes2
The Suffragettes

Suffragettes and the media

Why did a small number of women get so much media publicity?

Women getting arrested made a good story

Many people were shocked by women acting in this way

The Suffragettes put the government under pressure and people liked reading about this

Newspapers had strong views for or against votes for women

The violent tactics of the authorities made a good story

The Suffragettes were very good at publicity

How successful was the Suffragettes’ use of the media?

They wanted media attention and didn’t mind if it was positive or negative.

But their more violent tactics meant some women left them and joined the NUWSS.

Some important men could claim that they were mentally unstable.

However, they kept the attention of the media.

1913 the death of Emily Davison

At the Derby horse race she tried to stop the king’s horse but was knocked down and killed.

At first the media and public were against the action. However the WSPU organised two big funerals and made her a martyr.

Some newspapers were totally against the idea of votes for women – e.g. The Times.

Other newspapers supported the women when their methods were non-violent.

Some newspapers reported police violence.

One magazine (Punch) supported votes for women.

But most newspapers were against the Suffragettes.

However, when the WSPU used violence the papers reported it and gave the Suffragettes the publicity they wanted!

Stalemate! The government could not crush the protests but women could not get the vote unless the government changed the law.

the suffragettes3
The Suffragettes

The end of the campaign

The war ended in 1918.

In the same year the Representation of the People Act gave the vote to women over 30 if they or their husbands were householders.

In 1928 all women over 21 got the vote.

Did women get the vote because of the war or because of the Suffragettes’ actions?

The war showed that women could do jobs just as well as men.

Many people had been put off by the Suffragette tactics.

However, it was the Suffragettes who had made the change in law possible and they were the ones who pushed for it in 1918.

The government also did not want to go back to all the problems before the war.

But only richer women got the vote in 1918.

In 1913 Sylvia Pankhurst had split with her mother and left the WSPU. She formed the East London Federation for working-class women. She wanted all women to have the vote.

Christabel Pankhurst only wanted the vote for women with money and property.. She supported more violent action.

In 1914 the First World War began. The WSPU stopped all protests and supported the war effort.

In return the government released all Suffragette prisoners.

The NUWSS did not support the war as strongly as the WSPU.

During the war women played an important, active part doing jobs that had previously been for men only. Women were clearly capable of doing ‘men’s work’.

Sylvia Pankhurst was strongly against the war, a socialist and pacifist. But Emmeline and Christabel worked to get young men to serve in the armed forces.

  • ‘Violent protest was the worst way of campaigning for the vote.’ Do you agree?
  • Did the government’s attitude to the protests only help the Suffragettes’ campaign?
the general strike 1926
The General Strike 1926

The build-up.

  • In the early 20th century coal was very important because it powered all technology – much like oil today. Coal was Britain’s biggest industry.
  • Many described Britain as a land of ‘Two Nations’. The rich who enjoyed the wealth and power brought by trade and industry, driven by coal… and the workers, making the factory goods and digging the coal.
  • Coal miners worked in some of the worst conditions of all.In places like South Wales, Kent, South Yorkshire and the North-East they lived in villages in strong communities.
  • They kept Britain rich …at great cost.
  • The miners’ union, the Miners Federation of Great Britain (MFGB) was strong.

The Triple Alliance (TIA)

  • In 1914 the unions of the three other key workers – railwaymen, dockers and transport workers – joined together and agreed to support workers like the miners in their disputes.
  • Conflict was growing between employers and organised workers.


  • But then in 1914 war came. All sides agreed to fight the common enemy
  • Coal was needed for the war effort. The government nationalised the coal industry, taking control of the mines and paying the miners directly.
  • There were jobs for all.Wages went up and conditions improved.
the general strike 19261
The General Strike 1926
  • But prices went up too, and some mine owners were making lots of money for themselves.After the war, they wanted to keep making lots of money.
  • And after the war the government gave the mines back to the private owners.


  • The TIA said they would support the miners in a strike.
  • But on the first day of the strike the railway union leader, Jimmy Thomas, refused to act.
  • This was known as ‘Black Friday’.
  • The miners were left alone and the strike failed after a lot of hardship.


  • But then in 1925, a major crisis hit the British coal industry.
  • Exports went down.
  • So the mine owners told the miners: “We’ll cut your wages to what they were 4 years ago…… and we’ll make you work longer hours.”
  • The miners’ leader Arthur Cooke replied: “Not a penny off the pay! Not a second on the day!”
  • The mine owners said if the miners didn’t agree, they’d be locked out with no work and no pay.
the general strike 19262
The General Strike 1926

The Trades Union Congress (TUC)

  • They represented all the workers in unions – dockers, railwaymen, miners, transport workers etc.
  • They also wanted the mines to be nationalised– all run by the government, not by lots of private businesses.
  • The Conservative government – led by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin – was worried … and they bought time by making a deal with the TUC.

‘Red Friday’ 31 July 1925

  • The day the government agreed to the subsidy.
  • Some miners thought the government was on their side.
  • In reality the government was buying time.


  • In March 1926 the Samuel Commission reported.
  • It said: “No nationalisation, and a pay cut of 13.5%”
  • In other words, it supported the mine owners.
  • … but at the beginning of May the mine owners began a lockout. They hoped poverty and hunger would force the miners to give in.
  • The TUC members were ready to call a strike of two and a half million workers in support of the miners.
  • The leaders of the TUC – Walter Citrine, Ernest Bevin and Jimmy Thomas – didn’t want to go so far …
the general strike 19263
The General Strike 1926

Nine days in May

  • Daily Mail workers refused to print an anti-strike editorial.
  • The government pulled out of talks with the TUC.
  • TUC leaders called a general strike in support of the miners.

Government tactics.

The government planned carefully, supported by the media who portrayed the strike as a threat to parliamentary democracy.

  • They divided the country into regions, each with a headquarters and strong communication with London.
  • They piled up food and other resources.
  • They stockpiled coal.
  • They organised emergency electricity generation.
  • They made sure they controlled access to the media and published a newspaper, The British Gazette.
  • They recruited a large number of special policemen.
  • They made plans to use the armed forces to maintain supplies, guard key buildings and fight the strikers if necessary.
  • They set up the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies (OMS) to train volunteers as strike breakers, under Winston Churchill.
the general strike 19264
The General Strike 1926

The strike

For 9 days two and a half million workers were on strike

The TUC were not as well planned as the government. The leaders wanted workers to strike in stages.

In fact, millions went on strike on the first day including many that were planned to strike later.

The strikers

  • closed down docks, public transport, newspapers and many industries.
  • held daily meetings.
  • ran social and sporting events for strikers and their families.
  • tried to stop traffic moving around the country.
  • published a daily newspaper, The British Worker.


The BBC allowed government ministers to make speeches on the radio.

The BBC refused to let union leaders or the Labour Party leader.


  • The strike grew and got stronger day by day.
  • Some workers formed self-defence militias and Councils of Action.
  • There were a few clashes between police and strikers (in London, Newcastle and Glasgow) but it was mainly peaceful. In most places strike leaders and police worked together to avoid violence.
  • Over 5000 strikers were arrested.
the general strike 19265
The General Strike 1926

The strike was growing

  • Most public transport was stopped.
  • Police and army had to escort lorries from the docks.
  • Some buses and lorries were driven by strike-breaking volunteers.
  • Support for the strike was growing.


  • The TUC leaders did not want to be seen as traitors.
  • They were secretly meeting Sir Herbert Samuel, the man who led the Royal Commission that had looked at miners’ pay in 1925. The TUC did not tell the miners’ leaders about this meeting.
  • The TUC leaders made a deal with Samuel. This said that the miners’ wages might be protected.
  • The TUC then called off the strike on 11th May. The miners felt betrayed.
  • Now the miners were on their own.

The miners betrayed?

After the strike ended the government refused to follow the deal with Samuel. Instead they passed a law that made the miners work 8 hours a day.

So the miners carried on striking for another 7 months but hunger and poverty finally forced them back to work.

Many were victimised. Some strikers were not allowed their jobs back. All miners were forced to accept longer hours and lower wages.

In 1927 the British Government passed laws that made it illegal for workers to strike in sympathy with other workers and made it harder to join a trades union.

the general strike 19266
The General Strike 1926

A failure of leadership?

Why did the TUC Leaders end the strike? Some possible explanations...

  • They had not wanted the strike in the first place
  • They did not want to be seen as trying to wreck the country
  • They didn’t want a revolution
  • They didn’t think it would work
  • They couldn’t control it
  • They thought the economic situation was so bad that they had to be realistic
  • They wanted to stop the Communist Party becoming too strong
  • They were too close personally to the government ministers
  • They were more on the side of the bosses than the workers


In your opinion, was it a political strike or an economic one?

If the strike had continued, who would have won?

the miners strike 1984 1985
The Miners’ Strike 1984-1985

The 1970s

Thatcher and Scargill

In 1979 the Conservatives won power led by Margaret Thatcher. She had been in the 1974 government that was beaten by the miners.

After winning the Falklands War in 1982 and the election in 1983 she was in a strong position.

Coal mining was in trouble, Foreign coal, oil or gas was cheaper. Many mines were losing money.

On 1 March 1984 the government announced that it would close 20 pits with the loss of 20,000 jobs.

The leader of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was Arthur Scargill. The NUM leaders began a national miners’ strike.

News laws said workers must be balloted before a strike. Scargill argued that different areas had already voted for a strike so a national ballot wasn’t needed.

Some miners saw this as undemocratic. For Scargill and most NUM members it was a fight for survival.

Thatcher wanted to defeat the miners and she portrayed it as another war, calling the miners ‘the enemy within’.

Strong unions, weak governments.

Laws allowed the right to strike, to picket and to take action in support of other workers.

In 1972 and 1974 miners went on strike over pay.

They picketed mines and power stations. Other unions supported them., stopping fuel transport.

The Conservative government tried to save power with a 3-day working week but had to agree to the miners’ demands.

In February 1974 the government lost the election.

Why did the miners succeed?

  • Industry needed coal
  • The government couldn’t get enough coal to power stations
  • Other unions supported the miners
  • The strike was in winter when coal demand was high
the miners strike 1984 19851
The Miners’ Strike 1984-1985

The miners’ tactics

The government’s tactics

The Conservatives passed laws reducing union rights

Stockpiles of coal, private companies to transport coal and some powers tations converted from coal to oil – as a result power stations kept going

Heavy fines of £5 million imposed on the NUM because it had not had a national ballot

Ian MacGregorwas appointed head of the National Coal Board (NCB) and he had a reputation for taking a hard line against unions

No state benefits for miners (because the strike was ruled illegal) – many families were in real poverty

Promises to the Nottinghamshire miners that their pits and jobs were safe – this divided the miners

They got information about the NUM’s plans from people in other unions.

Police brought in from all over the country so that miners’ villages had a massive police presence

Police used to stop strikers (‘flying pickets’) travelling between strike areas

Stories fed to the media about NUM ‘corruption’ and ‘links with the Soviet Union’

Ministers kept saying in the media that strikers were using violence against miners who wanted to work

Miners against the strike were helped to form their own breakaway union (the UDM) and the government promised their pits would be kept open

  • A national strike was harder for the government to deal with than local strikes
  • As there was no national ballot there was no delay and the strike started immediately
  • The strike was portrayed as a fight for survival against a government wanting to destroy the miners and the unions
  • ‘Flying pickets’ travelled to more ‘economic’ mines to try and stop work there
  • The media was used to show police brutality
  • The solidarity and pride of miners’ communities helped them face hardship
  • Women in ,mining communities played a big part supportingand organising
  • Only miners on pickets got money from the NUM
  • Miners who didn’t strike were called ‘scabs’ and intimidated
  • Picketing workers resisted police attempts to get workers into the mines. There were bitter fights between police and pickets
  • Posters, badges, leaflets and appeals for support to other unions and community groups in the UK and overseas
  • Links to other groups opposing the government and support from popular culture
the miners strike 1984 19852
The Miners’ Strike 1984-1985

The ‘Battle of Orgreave’


18 June 1984 outside the Orgreave coking pant in South Yorkshire – the violence was seen by millions on TV, showing strikers throwing rocks , bricks and bottles at police.

The way it was shown made it seem that the miners started the violence and the police only charged after being provoked.

As a result, public support for the miners dropped and many union leaders criticised the strikers. The media attacked the miners more and more and NUM leaders had to call off mass pickets.

Much later the BBC admitted that they had reversed the order of events.. In fact, police on horseback had attacked peaceful pickets and caused serious injuries. Only then did the miners fight back.

The media

Public opinion was divided. Support for the strike was high in areas directly affected – South Wales, South Yorkshire, Durham, Scotland, Kent – but the government had a lot of support in other areas.

This was partly because newspapers were strongly against the strike – especially the Sun and Daily Mail and even the Daily Mirror. Only leftwing papers like the Socialist Worker and Morning Star fully supported the miners.

Media reports made the strike seem violent, with strikers attacking police and ‘scabs’ and this affected public support,

The NUM argued that the fight was mostly between unarmed men and women facing large numbers of police heavily armed with batons, riot shields and horses.

the miners strike 1984 19853
The Miners’ Strike 1984-1985

Supporting the strike

Other unions

The TUC voted to support the strike but nothing really happened and some unions refused , especially the electricians’ and steelworkers’ unions (even though the miners had supported steelworkers in their strike in 1980)

The Labour Party did not support the strike, though several local branches raised funds for strikers and their families.

Many Nottinghamshire miners left the NUM and formed a new union (the Union of Democratic Mineworkers –UDM) that refused to strike. They were encouraged by the government.

The union of colliery deputies and overmen (NACODS) voted to strike but in the end they called off their strike.

Meanwhile the National Coal Board (NCB) offered cash, bonuses and higher wages to strikers who went back to work.

More miners started drifting back to work.

In September 1984 the High Court ruled that the strike was illegal.

As a result

  • Striking miners could not get state benefits and so had to live off handouts and charity
  • The NUM was fined and refused to pay, so the courts seized their funds

In mining areas poverty and hunger was common.

Many miners faced the dilemma

  • Go back to work and be seen as a ‘scab’?
  • Or stay on strike and have no way of supporting the family?

Miners support groups were set up, often led by wives and girlfriends . Collections outside supermarkets, communal kitchens, benefit concerts.

Women Against Pit Closures – large numbers of women took a leading part in organisation and support work

the miners strike 1984 19854
The Miners’ Strike 1984-1985


The end

On 2 March 1985 the NUM voted 98 to 91 to end the strike.

Extreme poverty meant they could not go on.

It had lasted 51 weeks without getting anything from the NCB or the government.

The miners decided to go back to work with a celebration of their struggle, with marches and music.

Womens’ support groups gave flowers to the returning miners.

Many mining communities were divided between those who had stayed on strike and those who had gone back to work.

Many NUM members were very angry with the Nottinghamshire miners and saw them as strike-breakers.

Between 1985 and 1994 nearly all the coal mines in the UK were closed down , including the Nottinghamshire pits in spite of government promises.

In late 1984 and early 1985 things got more and more difficult for the NUM:

  • MacGregor said some pits would be privatised
  • The TUC started putting pressure on the NUM to settle
  • The NCB claimed that 1200 strikers had returned to work
  • A taxi driver taking a working miner to work was killed
  • The High Court banned all mass picketing in Yorkshire which meant if the NUM had more than 6 people on a picket they would lose their funds
  • MacGregor said sacked miners would not get their jobs back


Why did the strike fail? Is there any way it could have succeeded?

The government thought they were going to win in a few weeks: why didn’t they?

the poll tax protests 1990

What was the poll tax?

For example, the richest man in Britain was the Duke of Westminster. In the old system he had to pay £10,255. Now his tax was only £417 and his servants had to pay exactly the same amount.

Surveys showed that 70% of people would be worse off. Even those on income support had to pay 20% of the tax.

People living in rented properties came out very badly. Under the old system landlords had to pay the rates so they added to the rents to cover the charge. But with the new system most landlords didn’t reduce the rents even though their tenants now had to pay the community charge.

Between April and December 1989 Scottish landlords made about £40 million profit.

People soon began calling the community charge the poll tax. They were remembering what happened in 1381 when a government tried to tax everyone the same amount and the people rose up in a rebellion known as the Peasants’ Revolt.

Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government wanted to change the way local councils got their money.

The old system (rates): people paid according to the value of their house. People in expensive houses paid more than people in cheap houses. But the rate was the same however many people lived in a house. The government said this was unfair because it meant many people were paying nothing for the services they got.

The new idea (community charge): every adult in the country would pay the same amount, whatever kind of house they lived in. That meant poor people would pay as much as rich people.

The law for the new tax was passed by Parliament in 1987. The plan was to start it in Scotland in April 1989 and then in the rest of Britain in April 1990.

Everyone over 18 was told they had to pay the new tax.

the poll tax protests 19901

Protest or resistance?

4 main types of resistance

non-registration : not registering for the tax and then taking no notice of the fines they were told to pay

non-payment: not paying and staying linked to organised local groups that would defend everyone taken to court

Non-implementation: calling on councils to refuse to carry out the tax

Non-collection: asking all union members responsible for collecting the tax to refuse to do it


Which method was likely to be the most effective?

The new tax was very unpopular. Protests started in Scotland in 1989.

There were different ways of protesting. The Labour party and trades unions wanted protest marches and campaigns to persuade the government to drop the tax. They did not agree with breaking the law.

They organised a ‘Scottish Campaign Against the Poll Tax’ with leaflets, stickers and posters.

But many grassroots organisations wanted to do more. They set up a network of groups against the tax. They decided to resist, to refuse to pay.

There was a divide between 2 ways of opposing the tax:

  • Protest within the law to get the government ton change its mind or get people to vote against the Conservatives in the next election
  • Resistance to the law – people ready to refuse to pay and take the consequences.
the poll tax protests 19902

Grass-roots organisation and tactics

The government couldn’t negotiate because the protest wasn’t organised by political parties or trades unions but by local groups.

These groups were called Anti-Poll Tax Unions (APTUs). They started in Scotland and spread to England and Wales where there were eventually over 1,000 APTUs.

The APTUs gave out information and supported people not paying. They gave out information leaflets about non-payment and how to avoid bailiffs coming to take goods.They spray painted walls and stuck posters to publicise the movement. They made T-shirts, badges and mugs with slogans against the poll tax.

When councils sent bailiffs to the houses of non-payers to take their goods, APTU groups often organised protests to stop them entering.

If people went to court the APTUs organised demonstrations and gave legal advice.

In spite of the large numbers refusing to pay only 120 people were ever imprisoned.


Why was it hard for the authorities to act against the resisters?

The main form of resistance was non-payment.

By September 1989 at least 15% of people in Scotland were refusing to pay. By April 1990 1 million people had not paid a penny.

The tax became law in England in April 1990. By July there were 14 million non-payers.

By January 1991 in England non-payment in inner London was 34% and even in rural areas it was 18%. The resistance had spread to all parts of the country and all kinds of people. By March over 18 million people were refusing to pay.

By the time the poll tax was abolished non-payment reached over 50% in some parts of London. In the end £2.5 billion of tax was never paid.

This caused huge problems for the government. They couldn't arrest 18 million people! They couldn’t accuse the protesters of being criminals.

When people went to court for refusing to pay the tax, the court told them to pay fines: they then refused to pay the fines as well. Only 28% of those taken to court paid up and some even went to prison.

the poll tax protests 19903

The Battle of Trafalgar Square 31 March 1990

The organisers, realising the march was so big, asked the police to change the venue. The police refused.

The march started peacefully with people of all ages from all walks of life.

20 protesters staged a sit-in outside Downing Street after the police told them they could not hand in a petition. Protesters said the police deliberately provoked them. Some tried to get over the Downing Street barricades.

300 more people decided to sit down in protest and some fighting began between demonstrators and police and the fighting spread to Trafalgar Square itself.

Police on horses baton-charged the crowd and people threw bottles, sticks and stones back at them.

Many of the demonstrators left but about 3,00 stayed to face the police and there were pitched battles in the square and rioting and looting in the surrounding streets.

542 police officers and thousands of demonstrators and passers-by were injured. There were 341 arrests

As the movement grew the APTUs started linking together and an All-Britain Anti-:Poll Tax Federation (ABAPTF) was set up.

It started by organising demonstrations in different regions. Every time local councils met to set the poll tax rates, there were protests. Some were peaceful but others saw violent clashes between protesters and police, for example in Bristol.

The ABAPTF decided to hold a national demonstration in London on 31 March 1990.

Who were the leaders?

This was a grassroots movement of the people with no prominent leaders. Lots of different groups were involved including left-wing parties (Socialist Workers Party, Militant Tendency etc) , anarchists (Class War) and members of APTU federations. The Chair of the ABAPTF was the Scottish Socialist Tommy Sullivan.

What happened on the day of the London march?

The plan was for the march to finish at Trafalgar Square. The square can hold 60,000 people and the organisers expected about 20,000. In fact 200,000 came.

the poll tax protests 19904

The end of the poll tax

The role of the media

At first the media just reported the refusal of people to pay the tax.

But in March 1990 there were clashes between protesters and police outside town halls. Newspapers started attacking left groups and calling them ‘extremists’.

Most newspapers were against the protests and on the side of council officers and bailiffs. The Su and The People even printed police photos of demonstrators and told readers to hand them over to police.

On the other hand, TV footage of the demonstrators showed people being deliberately hit by police vans or trampled by horses.


Mass non-payment of the poll tax was successful.

The tax was abolished and Margaret Thatcher was forced to resign.

Was it an organised campaign or a spontaneous movement?

The mass non-payments and the riot in Trafalgar Square made it seem that the Government was not in control. Police were blamed for being ‘heavy-handed’ and violent.

Organisers of the resistance feared that the riot might cause public support to go down, but in fact the campaign got stronger and protests carried on all over the country.

In May 1990 the Conservatives did very badly in local elections. MPs worried about how unpopular they were becoming. Leaders of the party decided that they could not win the next General Election with Thatcher as leader. In November 1990 she was forced by her own ministers to resign.

The next Prime Minister was John Major. In April 1991 he announced that the poll tax would be replaced by a new Council Tax in 1993. But the Poll Tax would continue until then, so protests carried on.